Meet the candidates vying for the next president of South Korea

SEUL – The unusually bitter election season in South Korea ends on Wednesday, when tens of millions of voters elect their next president.

The winner, who will be sworn in in May and serve one five-year term, will face crucial challenges as the leader of a rapidly aging nation battling economic inequality, growing debt and the growing North Korean nuclear threat.

Here’s a look at the two main candidates before the vote:



The ruling Democratic Party’s hopes of nominating presidents back to back lie in the former governor, who promises a universal base income and engagement with rival North Korea.

Proponents of Lee Jae-mong adore his open style and see him as an anti-elitist hero who can fix the establishment’s policies, eradicate corruption and address growing economic inequality, declining labor markets and high housing prices.


For critics, the 57-year-old is a dangerous populist who hopes to incite division and demonize his conservative opponents by failing to support his ambitious oaths of welfare with realistic funding plans.

Tensions created as a result of accelerating North Korea’s missile tests this year also complicate Lee’s plans to inherit the foreign policy of current President Moon Jae-in. Moon’s attempts at inter-Korean rapprochement failed with the collapse of nuclear disarmament talks between Washington and Pyongyang in 2019.

A former governor of South Korea’s most populous province of Gyeonggi, Lee noted his struggle as a poor factory worker and then a labor rights lawyer before joining the center-left party in 2005. He advertised social security programs and reforms he began during his service. as mayor of Sonnam from 2010 to 2018 and then as governor of Gyeonggi from 2018 to 2021, which he said prepared him for “eradicating injustice, inequality and corruption”.


Lee is proposing a universal basic income policy that ultimately provides each South Korean with an annual payment of 1 million won ($ 820), and plans to adopt a new type of property tax to help fund payments. It also promises additional payments to young people under 30, seniors 60 and older, and vulnerable groups such as farmers, fishermen and artists.

As for foreign policy, Lee promised to continue Moon’s conciliatory approach to North Korea and questioned the effectiveness US-led economic sanctions to pressure Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons program. As for tensions between Washington and Beijing, Lee says South Korea should not be forced to choose between its ally in the treaty and its largest trading partner, respectively.

Lee was haunted by controversy over a recorded phone conversation where he verbally insulted his daughter-in-law in 2012 over a family dispute. He also faced allegations that he abused his power as mayor of Sonnam to force his deceased brother to a psychiatric facility that year, but he was acquitted on those charges in 2020.


Lee denies involvement in a dubious development project launched in Sonnam during his tenure as mayor, which has sparked suspicions of corrupt links between city officials, politicians and a hugely profitable small asset management firm. Several former city officials and businessmen, as well as a former MP, were arrested on bribery and other suspicions during the investigation.



Yun Suk Yol, 61, is a former chief prosecutor seeking to restore conservative rule. He promises to win tougher U.S. security commitments to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear threat and take a more assertive stance toward China.

A newcomer to party politics, Yoon was the popular Attorney General of Moon. He has led high-profile corruption investigations in past conservative governments. But he retired in 2021 and joined the Conservative People’s Power Party after fighting over his investigations into the Moon’s allies.


He has spent most of his 27-year professional career as a public prosecutor and faces criticism for his untested and strong leadership style failing to bring South Korea out of the complex security and economic challenges. He says he will appoint experienced advisers and allow them to deal with key issues that require qualifications.

Some experts say that if elected, Yun could get a bigger honeymoon with the public than Lee, as many polls show that more than half of those polled want a change of government. It is still unclear whether he will be able to translate this into steps of legislative reform, as Lee’s party still holds nearly 60% of the 295-member parliament.

Yun accused the Moon government of leaning toward North Korea and China and said it undermined South Korea’s longstanding alliance with the United States.

To cope with North Korea’s nuclear achievements, Yun promised to seek stronger “extended US deterrence,” citing Washington’s ability to use military and nuclear forces to deter attacks on its allies. He said he would strike a preemptive strike on North Korea if it showed signs of imminent attack – comments that Lee said were unnecessarily provoking North Korea.


Yun also said it would provide more than 2.5 million housing units to quell rising housing prices, offer financial aid packages to small business owners affected by pandemic restrictions, and dramatically raise the salaries of conscripts.

Yun created an image of a strong-minded, uncompromising prosecutor. During a parliamentary inquiry in 2013, Yun, then a senior prosecutor, found that he was under pressure from his boss in connection with an investigation into allegations that the country’s spy agency ran an illegal internet campaign to help Conservative President Park Geun-hye win the previous year. elections. At the time, he famously said, “I’m not loyal to people (high-level).

He was demoted, but when Pak’s government was overthrown over a separate corruption scandal in 2017, President Moon appointed Yoon as head of the Seoul prosecutor’s office, which investigated Pak and other conservative leaders. Yun was appointed Attorney General of Moon in 2019.


In 2017, Lee, the then mayor of Sonnam, said he wanted to make Yuna his attorney general when he became president. He now says that the Yuna government will start a “dictatorship of the prosecutor’s office, which is worse than previous governments backed by the military.”

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